The Road to Royalty

Last week, I met His Royal Highness Edward the Duke of Kent. I’d like to tell you the story of how this came about.

His Royal Higness was in Adelaide because he is the patron of the Royal Institution of Australia and was presenting an award to a scientist there. But it just so happened that the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef exhibition was still on display at the Royal Institution during his visit, so he dropped in for half an hour to see it.

“How nice for him,” you might say, “but how did you get to be there while he dropped in?”

Good question! Well, less than a week before, the curator of the exhibition Julie had emailed me to ask if I would like to attend afternoon tea with His Royal Highness in the Reef exhibition. She said that I was one of the very few men who was involved in crocheting the reef, and moreover she would greatly appreciate the knowledge I would bring about the mathematical aspects of the exhibition. After making sure the students in the Drop-In Centre would be looked after, I said yes — and that’s how I got to be there.

“But David,” you might continue, “how did you get involved in crocheting the reef in the first place?”

Another good question! Well, let’s see… another RiAUS staff member Cobi who I happened to know dropped in to my office in February asking me if I knew anything about hyperbolic geometry, and also if I happened to have any 3D models that might be used as part of an art exhibition. And of course I knew about hyperbolic geometry, and I had a couple of ready-made models of hyperbolic quadrics rigt there.

That was the start of a year-long involvement in the project. During the course of the year I wrote a poster for the exhibiton to explain the geometry, learned to crochet, crocheted about forty corals, and ran three crochet coral workshops. I was probably the most involved of the very few men who were involved.

“Wow! You really committed yourself to this, David,” you are probably saying. “But how did you happen to know Cobi?”

Ah! Yet another good question! Well Cobi had once worked as a tutor for a course called Research Methods in Media at the University. The very first tute was supposed to be refreshing the students’ memories of statistics, and she had come to me as the coordinator of the Maths Learning Service for some help running that tute. I jumped at the chance and we had a great time getting the students to draw graphical representations of data on the windows. It’s one of my first memories of working at the Maths Learning Service.

“Cool!” I’m sure you are saying. “But why did she think you would know about geometry and have 3D models?”

You are full of the great questions today! Well if you know me at all you’d know that I can’t help being excited about maths in general and geometry in particular, and also that I also have a collection of models of geometries that I pull out at every opportunity. So it shouldn’t really be a surprise that I did talk excitedly to Cobi about geometry, and show her the models when we met, even though my task was to help teach statistics.

“But,” you must certainly say, “that doesn’t explain why you happened to have the models of quadrics there.”

That is an excellent point. Well, I’ve always been a model-maker (I remember making things even in primary school). So it was a natural thing for me to try to make models of the quadrics I was studying when I came back to Uni to do my PhD. Towards the end of my first year of PhD I spent a few weeks making paper-mache models of quadrics, constructing the underlying structure with carboard and string. I have fond memories of sitting in the School of Maths tea room with my hands covered in maper-mache glue and paper and cardboard all over the table.

Later, towards the end of my PhD, I ended up on a team designing interactive activities for open-day and the string quadrics seemed like a reasonable thing to get passers-by to engage in. When I went to the Maths Learning Service, I took the string models with me.

Now you probably have more questions at this stage, but our conversation has been going on for some time now, and I think I’d better make some sort of point, don’t you?

If you trace the story back, you’ll find that there are two reasons I ended up meeting His Royal Highness. The first is that I never shyed away from doing things that would be considered play — things like paper-mache and  crochet. Other people were too busy or too embarassed to do this sort of thing, but that never stopped me. The second is that I was always willing to share my love of maths — with Cobi, with Cobi’s students, with the passers-by on Open Day, with the visitors to the reef, and finally with His Royal Highness himself.

If you want to learn anything from this, then learn what I did: never shy from playing, and never give up sharing the things you love with others. You really never know what good may come of it if you do.

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